HL Deb 24 March 1964 vol 256 cc1141-51

3.23 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, as I move, "That the Bill be now read a second time", I feel that I must first say a word or two about the Rochdale Report, which is the background for all Government policy on ports, and on which the Government have drawn in very large measure for the provisions that are in the Bill. I am sure your Lordships will be as pleased as I shall be to hear what the noble Viscount, Lord Rochdale, is proposing to say a little later in this debate.

The port industry, Parliament, and indeed the country as a whole, owe the noble Viscount an immense debt. The Report he and his colleagues produced in sixteen months of hard work has been so widely praised that I do not think it is easy for me to try to add anything; but I must place it on record that it was described by a speaker in another place as the most important event ever to have taken place in the history of the port industry—and I do not think that is overstatement. The noble Viscount has put the Government and the ports industry further in his debt by agreeing to become the Chairman of the National Ports Council, about which I shall have a good deal more to say in a moment.

But first I must state the main objective of my speech this afternoon, which is to give your Lordships a brief factual outline of the contents of the Bill. It certainly looks a formidable affair, with 61 clauses and 6 Schedules, and while much of it is of very considerable complexity, I hope to be able to satisfy your Lordships that the basic objectives of the Bill are straightforward, simple and, above all, commendable. They are, if I am not over-simplifying, to provide means whereby a comprehensive, coordinated plan for the systematic development of our ports over the next 15 or 20 years can be worked out. I should perhaps apologise to your Lordships if I rather over-simplify matters, but I shall try to present this very complex measure as best I can; so if I err in that way your Lordships will no doubt tell me about it in due course.

So I begin with the establishment of the National Ports Council and its proposed functions and duties. The draftsman, quite rightly and properly, put the provisions which deal with these in the forefront of the Bill, in the first eight clauses. The establishment of a strong central body to plan, in conjunction with the ports, the future pattern of development of the whole system was one of the chief recommendations of the Rochdale Committee and the Government were never in any doubt that it must be accepted, although I must tell your Lordships that the exact powers and functions of the Council as proposed in the Bill now before us are not in every respect identical with what that Committee recommended. The Bill, then, provides for the setting up of the National Ports Council and spells out their duties in Clause 1. These are so important that while I am not actually going to read them out, I want your Lordships to look at Clause 1 with great care, because the words have been very carefully chosen, and it is important that their significance should be fully understood.

As I said, the primary task of the Council is the working out, in close co- operation and conjunction with the ports themselves, of a comprehensive, coordinated national plan. I think the word to stress here is "co-operation". The National Ports Council will have no dictatorial powers such as would enable them to compel a port authority to undertake a project they did not want to do. It is cardinal to the Government's policy that the ports must do everything they can to help themselves and to feel as free as they possibly can to manage their own businesses within the overall concept—and when I get to the part of the Bill about charges, my Lords, we shall see how this principle applies in practice. Your Lordships will wish to know that the National Ports Council is already very hard at work, though of course on a non-statutory basis, on various aspects leading towards the plan and on their main duties which are, in effect, to give port authorities every possible help and encouragement, both in the formulation and execution of plans and for capital development and in assisting by way of their advice any port authorities that want it.

Clause 2 deals with the composition of the Council and says that the members are to be appointed by the Minister on the basis of experience and knowledge of various suitable kinds. It also provides for the possible appointment of people with experience of working in harbours and people with knowledge or experience of matters affecting the fishing industry, among others, who might have useful and special knowledge and experience. The real point is that it is not intended that the National Ports Council should be strictly representative of sectional or regional interests, but that it should provide a blend of experience and capacity in a number of different and appropriate fields.

Clause 3 is to enable the Council to do what seems to them to be practicable and desirable for the promotion of research into matters of management, construction and improvement of harbours and the carrying out of harbour operations and training and education. Their training and education activities are not to overlap those of the National Dock Labour Board, but they will be able, for instance, to train dock workers for white collar jobs on the management side. My right honourable friend can direct the Council to promote research into any specific problems as he may think desirable, and the Council, if they promote research to be carried out by other people, can give financial assistance for it.

Clause 4, my Lords, is important. It provides that the Council's expenses are to be met by means of a levy on the port industry, subject to the Minister of Transport's prior approval of both the actual scheme itself and the amount that can be raised under it. This clause was hotly opposed in another place, largely on the ground that the Council should properly have been financed by way of Exchequer grants. It would take too long if I went fully into the reasons why the Government rejected this course—perhaps that may come later—but I think it will do at this stage if I say that the Government are quite convinced that for the Council to derive its income from the port industry will both encourage it to be as independent as possible and, at the same time, promote close relations with the port authorities with whom the Council must work. Perhaps I should at this stage just say that I am not going right the way through the Bill in this way, but these first eight Clauses are very important, and I thought I ought to give them special attention.

I will go on to the second main section of the Bill, which deals with the control of harbour development. I think your Lordships will agree with me that it the concept of an overall and comprehensive national ports development plan is to be effective, there will clearly have to be powers to disallow major developments if these do not fit in with the national plan. Clause 9 therefore proposes that the Minister shall have powers of this kind, and he must consult with the National Ports Council before he can act. Some fears arose in another place that the Minister and the Council might use these powers in such a way as to control minor and relatively unimportant capital works, and the Bill was therefore amended to provide that the control will not operate on works costing up to £500,000; nor will it be used to control routine maintenance and repairs. I think that change was quite widely welcomed, and certainly I think it should relieve the worries of the smaller ports, who thought they might have to go through a cumbersome procedure for quite small projects, although that, of course, was never the idea of the clause.


My Lords, I do not want to interrupt the noble Lord, but this is an important point. I accept that for a port authority like the Port of London Authority £500,000 is very little, considering the work they have to do. But, if we consider a small port somewhere else, £500,000 is more than will ever be spent. Should there not be some relation between the size of the port and the work to be done?


I think that would be difficult to write into the Statute. The sum of £500,000 was settled upon as the most reasonable compromise that could be made, and the Bill of course has provision for varying that figure if it proves to be either too high or too low.

Clauses 11 to 13 provide that the Minister, with Treasury approval, and having consulted the Council, may make grants or loans to port authorities for the various purposes set out in Clauses 11 and 12. I think I can best express to your Lordships the real intention of these clauses by saying that Government policy will be that no approved major capital project which fits into the national plan shall be stultified by lack of funds to carry it out. I think that is putting it as simply as I can. Clause 13 puts the limit of the aggregate of these loans and grants at £50 million, which can go up to £100 million if another place so provides. I think in these cases where a Minister is granted powers of financing assistance to an industry it is now usual to write a maximum into the Statute.

I come to harbour revision and empowerment orders in Clauses 14 to 17, which are also important. The intention is to enable harbour authorities, on the one hand, and persons or bodies who wish to construct new harbours, on the other, to have a new and rather simpler method of getting the necessary statutory authority. Until now, the only way they could get new powers was by Private Bill or Provisional Order, both of which have to go through a lengthy and often expensive process before they become law. Under the new procedure, measures—certainly those which command general assent—should go through much more quickly. I would point out that the amplest safeguards have been written in to ensure that proposals of this kind are thoroughly aired and any possible objections to them examined. Without going into the whole detail, which is very long, I would say that they provide for extensive advertisement, a reasonable time for objections or representations, and a public inquiry where the Minister thinks it desirable—and I imagine that he would think it desirable in any contested proposal. On top of that, when that has all been done and the Minister lays an order before Parliament, the Special Parliamentary Procedure to which it is then subject provides also the fullest opportunity for detailed scrutiny. The objects for which these orders can be made your Lordships will find in Schedule 2, and Schedule 3 spells out in great detail the procedure that is to be followed before the Minister lays an order before Parliament.

The Minister himself is given related powers, in Clause 15, to make harbour revision orders off his own bat, but he can do that only on representations made to him by the National Ports Council; and even then he can, in effect, only reconstitute a harbour authority or alter its constitution or regulate either in whole or in part, its procedure. This was thought necessary because it could happen (although I should hope only very rarely) that both the Minister and the National Ports Council were satisfied that changes of some kind ought to be made in a harbour authority's constitutional procedure for which that authority, for some reason or other, was unwilling or reluctant to ask; and I think I can see where it might be less embarrassing for the Minister to act of his own motion on this than for the authority to start the action itself. Harbour empowerment orders, on the other hand, deal with the situation where some person or body wants to construct a new harbour, and the procedure is, in fact, very much the same as for harbour revision orders.

Clause 18 brings us on to harbour reorganisation schemes. The Rochdale Committee came to the firm conclusion that there was a lot to be gained by the unification of port facilities in an estuary or river in a number of places around the coasts. The Government accept this in principle. Proposals can come either from the Council or from all or any of the harbour authorities concerned; and once again the procedure they have to go through has been designed to provide for the fullest possible scrutiny. Under Clauses 19 to 24 the Minister can make orders, called "Control of movement orders", to set up schemes for the control of movement of ships entering or leaving harbours; and how harbour authorities apply to my right honourable friend for such an order is set out in Schedule 5. I should say that what is in these clauses is a self-contained section of the Bill, not closely related to the main objectives of the other important parts of it; although I think one could argue that the effective control of ships entering and leaving harbours is probably conducive to their commercial efficiency. What we hope to see happening is further progress along the lines which have already been successful in the Mersey and Thames estuaries; but again I stress that the initiative again lies with the harbour authorities concerned.

My Lords, I come next to what might be the most important single section of the Bill—important both because of what it does and because of what has been thought and said about Clauses 25 to 38, which contain the provisions about the control of charges. They are, quite frankly—and particularly Clauses 25, 29 and 30—exceptionally complicated in detail, but I think I can put their essential objectives fairly simply.

At present, the charges which a harbour authority can make may be subject to a variety of controls, or to no control at all: it all depends on whatever is in the appropriate one of the large and various number of Private and Public Acts which govern the powers of harbour authorities to charge. The Rochdale Committee thought the existing system inadequate, inconsistent within itself and to a large extent unnecessary. The Government accept this, and accordingly the general objective is to free the authorities from all statutory controls which may be contained in Acts of general or local application and to leave them at liberty to make such charges as they think right in respect of dues on ships, passengers and goods or of charges for other services such as stevedoring, warehousing and so forth. I must, however, point out to your Lordships two important qualifications to this freedom—one already written into the Bill and another which I propose to move in Committee. First, so far as dues on ships, passengers and goods are concerned, the freedom of harbour authorities to make such charges as they think fit is qualified by the right of a port user to object to paying a particular due. These objections are to be heard by the National Ports Council, whose decision is to be final. If they think that the objection is justified, they can direct a port authority to fix that due at a given figure which will thereafter remain frozen for a period, not exceeding twelve months, to be fixed by the Council.

The second qualification arises out of an undertaking which the Government gave late in the progress of the Bill in another place, and it is that charges which a port authority are entitled to make, other than ship, passenger and goods dues, are to be subject to the limitation that if they were required by Statute before the passing of this Bill to be reasonable they must continue to be so. I think that this is something we shall have to discuss in more detail in Committee when I move the necessary Amendments, and that your Lordships might be content to leave the matter for the present.

I want to come to Clause 30, which is also important, because it provides that the National Ports Council, if they are unable to reach agreement with a particular port authority on the level of all or any of their charges may submit to my right honourable friend a scheme for adjusting those charges, for the Minister to approve if he so decides.

I will not try to conceal from your Lordships that these provisions have been the subject of intense scrutiny and debate, both in and out of Parliament and have been strongly objected to by many of the important interests concerned. I do not think I should take time to-day to go in detail into the grounds of this argument, though I have little doubt that we shall later on; but broadly, however, the argument is between those who think that in the last resort the control of charges made by harbour authorities should rest, as it has hitherto, with the Minister of Transport, and those who think that it is high time for statutory control of this kind to be abolished. The Government have never had any doubt that the right course is the one recommended in the Bill, which incidentally conforms precisely in this respect to the recommendations of the Rochdale Committee.

Let me remind your Lordships that it is a cardinal principle of the Bill that harbour authorities should have the maximum degree of freedom to regulate their affairs, including, of course, their financial affairs. It would be inconsistent with such a principle that the Minister should retain the powers which he has now to regulate port charges; but at the same time, in view of the special position of the ports, it seemed right to us to provide, as a counterpart to this freedom, a right of objection to a particular due on the grounds set out in Clause 29. We are satisfied that this kind of objection should go to the body which the Government have set up, charged with the general oversight of ports, rather than to the Minister.

But it is not the same when we come to Clause 30. I think I should say, and make quite clear, that we regard that provision as very much a reserve power; we certainly do not think it very likely that it will have to be invoked in many cases. But—and here again we accept a recommendation of the Rochdale Committee—a situation could arise where a particular port was not making proper provision for depreciation and reserves and refused to listen to the advice of the National Ports Council that it should review its charges in order to put itself on a more satisfactory financial basis. Then the National Ports Council, if they fail to reach agreement with the port authority, will be able to make recommendations to the Minister, but in a matter of such importance we feel that the final decision on it should be with him.

Clauses 39 and 40 deal with the furnishing of information and statutory harbour authorities' annual statements of accounts. I am sure that noble Lords will be relieved to hear that I am not going in detail into the rest of the Bill; that is, Clauses 41 to 61 and Schedules 4, 5 and 6. They contain the usual miscellany of matters which have to be covered in any major Public Bill, like penalty provisions, application to the Crown, inquiries and hearings, date of coming into operation and so forth. I need only direct your Lordships' attention to Clause 52, which sets out the orders made by my right honourable friend the Minister, which are to be subject to Negative Resolution procedure, with its consequent safeguards.

I have referred already to one major Amendment, or rather series of Amendments, which in due course I shall ask your Lordships to approve. I should perhaps mention another. Late in the Bill's progress in another place the Opposition introduced an Amendment providing for the payment of compensation for loss of employment or worsening of conditions of employment arising out of the operation of certain provisions of the Bill. It was withdrawn on an undertaking being given that the Government were sympathetic to the principle behind the Amendment, but would like to consider in more detail exactly how it should be applied. I have little doubt that when your Lordships see what I shall be moving in due course you will agree that it is one which fully satisfies the undertaking.

My Lords, I have done my best to give your Lordships a complete but not too lengthy description of the principal points of what is in this long and complicated Bill, but I realise that I have had to deal rather summarily with many matters of considerable weight. If, however, I have managed to place before your Lordships the main objectives of the Bill under its different heads with reasonable clarity, I shall consider that I have succeeded, but no doubt there will be many queries and matters which we shall have to discuss. We have reached a critical point in the development of our ports, and this Bill therefore comes at the right moment.

One of the many pregnant observations in the Rochdale Committee's Report was that we ought to prepare for a 100 per cent. increase in the volume of our imports and exports by 1980—and, in fact, it might be earlier than that. If we are going to achieve that kind of expansion it will need the best brains we can get and the close and positive co-operation of all concerned. It is not a matter in which one can lay down hard and fast lines and rigid policy directives. The Government will expect a far-seeing and imaginative report from the National Ports Council and also the fullest co-operation from the port authorities in developing in accord with it. The Ministry of Transport will be available at all times to give advice and assistance as may be required of it, and not least, perhaps, financial assistance. Her Majesty's Government have every confidence that a working partnership between the National Ports Council, the port authorities, whether they are independent or nationalised, and the Ministry of Transport will produce the best possible results. The first step towards that is this Bill, which I ask your Lordships to read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Chesham.)